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When Barnes and Noble Warehouse Workers Got Sick, They Organized and Won

The labor movement has great potential for power in this country if it brings in those who have long been excluded.

Workers outside the Barnes & Nobles warehouse in Monroe, NJ, to demand closure for 2 weeks and paid time-off after several workers tested positive for COVID-19, on April 7, 2020.

I have been working the night shift at a Barnes & Noble warehouse in Monroe, New Jersey, for the past 16 years. For decades I have witnessed abuses at my workplace, but the COVID-19 crisis spurred me into collective action for the first time.

Every evening, I come into work on a shop floor with hundreds of other immigrant workers, all packaging deliveries in close quarters. As news of the pandemic spread, I began to worry about the conditions in my warehouse. My managers were not providing us with any protective equipment, and we were expected to maintain the same rate of productivity, working dangerously close to one another.

I told my boss that I was concerned for my safety, and that of my co-workers. I told him that I was worried if things carried on in the same way we would all get sick, and that I wanted to use my personal days to stay home. My supervisor responded by telling me I was exaggerating, and that my personal days would not get approved, but the choice was mine if I wanted to take two weeks of unpaid leave. I spoke with my sons about the situation at my warehouse, and as a family we wrestled with the same choice that so many working-class families across the country are being forced to make every single day. Should I put my health and life at risk in order to keep working and provide for the basic necessities? It is a calculus that is not unfamiliar to immigrant families in normal times, but has become clearer and inescapable during the COVID-19 crisis.

Ultimately, as a family, we decided that the risk was not worth it, and that we would be able to cover the bills for a couple of weeks. I told my boss I would not be returning to work, but I was worried about my co-workers, who were not able to make that choice. The state calls all warehouse workers “essential,” including those packaging and delivering books, but Barnes & Noble had done next to nothing to protect us from COVID-19.

After a week the managers called me back, and tried to force me to come back to work. They told me I only had one week of unpaid leave, and that because of the time I had taken off, I was no longer eligible for vacation. Meanwhile my co-workers were telling me about the deteriorating conditions inside the warehouse. The company still had not given workers masks or gloves, and workers were sharing scanners without access to cleaning supplies. While the managers sat protected inside of their offices, workers were coughing on the shop floor as their colleagues tried to sound the alarm.

By April 1, when Barnes & Noble finally admitted to having its first case, coworkers said that many on the shop floor were already exhibiting symptoms of the virus. I received panicked calls from my co-workers who told me the warehouse was refusing to shut down and forcing them to come back to work. The more stories I heard, the angrier I became. Our bosses tell us they appreciate our work; they give us certificates of gratitude on Christmas. But for all of their empty words of gratitude, in this moment — when it mattered the most — they callously denied us even basic protections. My co-workers were in the hospital, and it was management’s fault. I realized we had to do something.

In our determination to provide for our families, many of us believed that if we just put down our heads and worked hard enough we would be able to give our children a better life. We were so focused on the task we set out to do when we came to this country — work, put food on the table, buy a car and a home — that we believed our problems could be solved individually. But there are some dreams that will never be realized unless we fight for them together, collectively: to live and work with dignity, to keep our families together, to leave our children a better world.

Now, in this moment when so many of us risk losing the little we thought was in our control, we are waking up to the reality that no matter how hard we work in this country, the powerful will not give us anything. Instead, they continue to take and take. It is not enough to have a job, when a job can be lost from one day to the next. Immigrant workers who have been criminalized by a government that makes us feel we do not belong here are beginning to realize that nothing will change until we demand more — to believe in the first instance that we deserve more.

With the support of Movimiento Cosecha and Warehouse Workers Stand Up, I organized a call with my co-workers to discuss the options. For years Barnes & Noble has stopped us from forming a union, but we decided to draft up a list of demands and called for a protest to put pressure on management. We demanded the warehouse close for two weeks to decontaminate, and give workers paid time off, hazard pay and protective equipment. Over the next three days more and more workers began joining our chat, slowly overcoming their fear and doubt.

We collected hundreds of petitions and on the day of the protest, management was waiting for us outside. They were prepared to intimidate and stop other workers from joining. But I know they were also scared because they depend on our labor, and we have the ability to shut down the warehouse. That same week they began handing out protective equipment, and soon thereafter announced they would close the warehouse for five days and give workers paid leave in order to decontaminate. Today, things look very different at my warehouse, and I know it is thanks to the public pressure we put on the company.

But the fight does not end here, and our fight was never just about conditions in one warehouse. Since we began to organize at Barnes & Noble, immigrant workers across New Jersey have been calling to share similar stories of bosses taking advantage of the crisis to exploit their workers, or else allowing them to get sick in their warehouses. Businesses are hiring workers at rates below minimum wage, and many families are so desperate to put food on their tables that they are willing to accept far less than they deserve. It is the foreseeable consequence of mass unemployment, in a country that refuses to grant its workers basic protections.

Yet sitting quietly alongside the desperation there is also a growing anger. It is an anger that has been simmering beneath the surface for decades, but has reached its boiling point. It is the anger we feel when faced with the unassailable truth that they are letting us die — that they don’t care if we die. This crisis has uncovered what many of us already knew to be true: that the rich and powerful in this country depend on our labor, while denying our dignity, respect and protection. Faced with this undeniable truth, many immigrant workers across the state are waking up and demanding more.

We have before us a tremendous opportunity to organize workers, particularly those who, like us, do not have the benefit of a union. In the United States only 10 percent of all workers are unionized, and in industries with large numbers of immigrant workers, unionization rates are even lower. We must take advantage of the opportunity presented to us in this moment to teach one another how to fight for our dignity and to bring newly awakened workers into our organizations. In the midst of the public health and economic crisis facing our communities, we have a precious window of opportunity to grow the power of worker-led movements in this country by reaching workers who have long been excluded from the traditional labor movement, but who are ready to fight.

In New Jersey, we are supporting workers in other warehouses who have reached out in the face of similarly dangerous working conditions. We are sharing our experiences in order to help workers at other warehouses overcome fear of retaliation, and I know we are not alone. Over the last few months we have seen workers at Amazon challenge the Goliath, and Minneapolis bus drivers refusing to cooperate with police in powerful alignment with the Movement for Black Lives. They are showing us the seeds of what is possible if we begin to take seriously the power that low-wage, Black, Latinx and immigrant workers have in this country, and build the capacity we need in order to wield it.

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